As we continue in our series on Jesus’ parables, we’re once again looking at the Gospel according to Luke this morning. Our story is short—very short, in fact—so it’s especially important for us to know where this fits in the larger story that Luke’s telling.
We’re right in the middle of Luke’s gospel, and Immediately before this, Jesus has healed a woman in the synagogue on the Sabbath. This resulted in some harsh words from religious leaders, and Jesus defends himself by calling them hypocrites—they give their animals food and water on the Sabbath, so why should he not give life to this woman? The crowds rejoiced, and the leaders slunk away. And that’s where we pick up the story.
Scripture: Luke 13:17-18
He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’
This parable is…interesting on a whole bunch of levels. Jesus doesn’t interpret this one for us—there’s no neat and tidy explanation in the next few verses. Parables are the stories meant to disturb, to provoke, to help us visualize and grasp the mysteries that words alone can’t communicate to us—so what is it that Jesus is trying to teach us?
Many scholars have tried to interpret this parable as an allegory – a representative story where each thing stands in for something else. The mustard seed is often interpreted as Jesus’ teachings, and so the tree is the new covenant – the new kingdom. The birds are either all the peoples of the earth or more specifically the Gentiles, aka everybody not part of Israel, who will flock to this God to make a home and to be cared for.
That’s fine. That’s nice, even, but there is very little about that interpretation that expands or challenges our ideas of who God is and what God’s up to in the world.
And it’s highly unlikely that the original audience who heard this parable would’ve interpreted it that way. So let’s assume for a moment that the mustard is just mustard, and the birds are just birds.
There’s also the question of the science behind this parable. A mustard seed does not grow into a tree. There is no variety of mustard that grows into anything we would call a tree. There is one particular type of mustard plant that can grow into a rather large bush, about 8 feet tall, but most only grow to be 1 or 2 feet tall. So it’s likely that Jesus is engaging in a small bit of exaggeration for the sake of making his point.
Also, of all the plants he could’ve chosen, why mustard?
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, the New Testament scholar we’ve heard from before in this series, has some thoughts.
Mustard plants were often added to gardens in Ancient Israel around the edges to create boundaries and prevent critters. She also notes that the leaves and seeds, when ground up, had several medicinal purposes—they were used in herbal medicines for stomach problems, pain relief, and even breathing problems. Mustard also grew really well in that climate, so it would’ve been everywhere.
Jesus often used images and settings that were very common and very familiar in his stories and parables, so that fits the bill.
But here’s the twist: in the Old Testament, kingdoms and empires were often compared to trees – the Assyrian Empire was described in Ezekiel as ‘a tree loftier than all the trees of the field.’ Babylon was compared to a ‘mighty cedar.’ The kingdoms that didn’t last were ‘cut down and thrown into the fire.’
So instead of comparing God’s kingdom to a mighty, tall tree—something solid and difficult to uproot—Jesus chooses a mustard plant. Small enough to line a garden with, but pervasive and ever-present in the lives of very ordinary people. Instead of one mighty tree, in one time and one place, Jesus chooses a small, medicinal plant that’s a little bit of everywhere.
Immediately after this parable comes the parable of the leaven—also short and sweet. Jesus says that the kingdom of God is a lot like a woman who mixed in a little bit of yeast with a large amount of flour – and as the yeast grew, it spread, and soon the whole batch was rising.
This is the mystery of our parable: one small thing—a small seed tossed into the ground, a little bit of yeast dropped into a lot of flour—grows into something much larger than itself. This is the way of things in God’s kingdom: a little goes a long way.
I often think about the countless men and women who’ve contributed to my faith over the years—Sunday School teachers, VBS volunteers, camp counselors, pastors, mentors, friends. Did y’all know I can still sing the words and do the motions to most of the songs I learned at church as a kid? I won’t prove it to you because that would just traumatize all of us.
But for the most part, those are the moments that go by unnoticed and un-celebrated. Just over a month ago, I celebrated the third anniversary of my ordination as a minister. I remembered all of the people who came to lay hands on me that day: a few of my childhood Sunday School teachers, a couple of my grandmother’s siblings, some friends from seminary and college, my pastors and elders from my church in Michigan.
Even in that big moment, all I could think about was the millions of tiny moments—the small steps of faith, the challenges, the daring to hope, the wrestling together and crying together and laughing together—that brought me to that moment. I sometimes wonder if instead of celebrating the date of my ordination, I should celebrate “My Sunday School Made Me Memorize the Apostles’ Creed And Recite It In Church Day,” or “Cried in My Friend’s Living Room Day,” or “Learned the Motions to Jesus Loves Me Day.”
A very wise pastor, the Rev. Jeffrey Petersen, once told me: the work of the Holy Spirit always adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
A small seed. A patch of dirt. A little bit of water here, maybe some compost in the spring, a little more water there. One morning, you wake up and notice a little bit of green poking up. Another month, you’ve got a full-grown plant whose seeds can ease pain and whose leaves can treat illness.
A little bit of curiosity. A community to plant yourself in. Some questions, some laughter, some tears, some light bulb moments. One morning, you wake up and find a little faith growing. Sometime later, you begin to see the whole garden – filled with beauty and healing and hope.
It’s not up to us to raise up mighty cedars overnight. You can’t rush the growing. Perhaps the job isn’t cedars at all—it’s mustard, or irises, or corn. It’s the little things, growing all around us, that make up the kingdom of God.
Dr. Levine says it this way: “The challenge of the parable can be much homier: don’t ask “when” the kingdom comes or “where” it is. The when is in its own good time—as long as it takes for seed to sprout and dough to rise. The where is that it is already present, [budding], in the world. The kingdom is present when humanity and nature work together, and we do what we were put here to do—to go out on a limb to provide for others, and ourselves as well.”
So to all of you who attend to the little things – the Sunday School lessons and song sheets, the snacks and the paperwork, the prayers and the kind words and the friendships – thank you. You show me every day that God is here, at work among us. The work we do is never fruitless, because every little thing will add up to so much more in the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Amen.
 Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (p. 182). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.